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What's Better Phonics or Whole Language?

The History of Phonics Instruction:

Prior to the eighteen hundreds, English language instruction had always been traditionally taught via phonics. However, during the mid-eighteen hundreds the Prussian method of reading instruction, known as Whole Language instruction, overtook phonetic instruction in popularity and became the primary way that language was instructed in the west until the 1950s. Whole Language instruction is based on the idea that students learn phonetics naturally and do not need to be explicitly taught decoding skills. Moreover, Whole Language is based on the idea that learning how to read is a natural process. 


During the 1950s there began to be an increasing body of evidence that phonetic instruction might be a superior form of language instruction. By the 1990s this appeared to be a settled debate, as most teachers once again began to teach reading in the formative years of students’ education with phonics. “The International Reading Association’s position paper (1998) on the role of phonics in reading instruction summed it up this way: “Rather than engage in debates about whether phonics should or should not be taught, effective teachers of reading and writing ask when, how, how much, and under what circumstances phonics should be taught” (Starret, 2006).


In 2001, the National Reading Panel conducted a meta-analysis of 36 phonics studies, the authors of this meta-analysis examined both the mean effect of phonics and the effect of phonics compared to Whole Language. They found an overall moderate effect size of .41 for phonics. Phonics outperformed Whole Language by a mean effect size of .31 and Whole Word Instruction by a mean effect size of .51. However, these were not the last meta-analyses on the topic. John Hattie, identifies 13 other meta-analyses on phonics, and I have myself conducted a meta-analysis on phonics instruction. In the below chart you can see the results of all 15 of these meta-analyses were positive, showing on average comparable results to the NRP. 

Comparably, John Hattie identifies four other meta-analyses on Whole Language. If we include the NRP Whole Language results, with these for other meta-analyses, we get a mean negative effect size for Whole Language. 

However, likely to the surprise of Starret, and the NRP authors, as postmodern education approaches such as inquiry-based learning grew in popularity, so did resentment towards the phonetic approach. This new wave of teaching philosophy saw explicit or direct instruction methods, as naturally authoritarian, similar to textbook work, homework, and rote memorization. This led to the rise in popularity of Balanced Literacy which popularized the idea of implicit instruction or guided reading, as the most important pedagogical concept for reading instruction. In many ways, this new movement of education was a reactionary movement, against more traditional and authoritarian teaching methods, from the past. 


The Rise of Balanced Literacy:

Balanced Literacy advocates sought to end the reading wars debate by combining what they saw as the best of both strategies. While as the name suggests part of the approach is focused on dividing literacy instruction into multiple types and devoting attention to each type: reading fluency, reading comprehension, phonics, and writing. However, Balanced Literacy advocates, like Fountas and Pinnell wanted to avoid the direct instruction methods of the past for phonetic instruction; this led to the idea of teaching phonetics, unsystematically. (Education Weekly, 2019). 


Under the Balanced Literacy Approach to phonics, teachers are not supposed to directly teach phonics, but rather use it as a specific intervention for students that are struggling. For example, when a student is struggling with a word a Balanced Literacy teacher would help them sound it out, but would not likely explicitly teach lessons on phonics (Ibid). There is no commonly accepted definition of Balanced Literacy. However, programs that are well recognized as Balanced Literacy such as Fountas and Pinnell, Units of Study, and Reading Recovery, typically teach literacy primarily: 

-Without the use of decodable texts

-Without a scope and sequence

-Entirely embedded within fluency instruction


To date there are no peer reviewed meta-analyses on Balanced Literacy. In 2022, I conducted a meta-analysis comparing phonics instruction to Balanced Literacy, for the purposes of this website. However, I am currently attempting to peer-review an updated version of this analysis. In my 2022, meta-analysis of the topic I found a mean effect size of .45 for phonics, and .25 for Balanced Literacy. These results suggest that Phonics interventions on average show double the results as do Balanced Literacy interventions, as can be seen in the below chart. 

However recently the Balanced Literacy movement has gained an unlikely opponent. With the rise of special education, so came a rise in parental advocacy groups. And in recent years, advocacy groups for parents of students with Dyslexia, have been increasingly focused on the use of phonics instructions for emergent readers as the most effective instructional approach. These parental advocacy groups have been especially fueled by an ever-growing body of scientific literature that suggests quite definitively that the explicit instruction of phonics is more effective in increasing reading levels of emergent readers than whole language approaches. This movement is often referred to today as the “science of reading movement”.


While in some ways, the normative pedagogies of most schools will likely be slow to change, there are growing signs that institutional change is coming. Recently across both the United States and Canada governments have been making moves to ban Whole Language and Balanced Literacy approaches. The academic debate on this subject has been labeled the Reading Wars debate because it is seen as the most hotly debated subject within the academic literature on education. However, while the public policy aspect of this debate is largely still in full effect, the actual academic debate has been essentially settled and it is essential that teachers understand the context of the debate, for when they are exposed to Whole Language Advocates. While we have over a dozen meta-analyses showing that phonics instruction works. There is little to no evidence that Whole Language or Balanced Literacy is more effective than a phonics focused or Structured Literacy approach. 


Written by Nathaniel Hansford

Last Edited 2023-01-25



Education Weekly. (2019). Phonics vs. Balanced Literacy: A Classroom Comparison. Retrieved from <>. 


NRP. (2001). Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence Based Assessment of the Scientific Literature on Reading Instruction. United States Government. Retrieved from <>. 


N, Hansford. (2022). A Meta-Analysis of Language Programs. Teaching by Science. Retrieved from <>. 


J, Hattie. (2022). Phonics. Visible Learning Metax. Retrieved from <>. 


J, Hattie. (2022). Whole Language. Visible Learning Metax. Retrieved from <>.

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